By Daniel Bendtsen
Via Wyoming News Exchange
LARAMIE — While Albany County sheriff’s deputy Derek Colling was cleared by a grand jury last week of involuntary manslaughter, the corporal remains on administrative leave after fatally shooting Laramie man Robbie Ramirez in November.
Albany County Attorney Peggy Trent held a press conference Monday afternoon to discuss the grand jury decision and suggested actions the county can take to avoid police shootings in the future.
After the grand jury opted not to indict Ramirez, the victim’s family suggested Friday that “the system has failed Robbie.”
Trent, however, said that was not the case.
“It may not be the result that some people wanted, but I will submit to you that the system did not fail,” Trent said. “The jury system is there for a reason and this system was done fairly and the evidence was presented.”
Trent acknowledged the frustration that both police and the public have expressed about the investigation.
“Law enforcement’s not happy that I’ve now said that, in Albany County, we will put deadly force to a grand jury,” she said. “The citizens aren’t happy, because in their minds, he should be criminally prosecuted. … I’m here to tell you that the evidence did not meet that level of probable cause.”
Grand jury proceedings are exceedingly rare in Wyoming. Unlike a jury trial, no judge is present, and the prosecutor has the sole power on what evidence to present.
Because of that power, grand juries are sometimes criticized for producing the result the prosecutor wants.
Sol Wachtler, former chief judge of the New York Court of Appeals, once famously wrote that a prosecutor could get a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.”
And while Trent said Monday she believed there was not probable cause to indict Colling, she herself didn’t make up her mind on that question until the last day of the jury deliberations.
Unlike a normal jury trial, the jurors in a grand jury ask questions of both Trent and the witnesses.
“Those questions were asked in detail and put those witnesses on the spot,” she said. “No disrespect to defense attorneys, but it was more raw and more direct towards those witnesses than you would ever have in a courtroom with a jury present with a judge.”
In a Wyoming grand jury proceeding, only nine of 12 jurors are required to vote in favor of indictment for criminal proceedings to begin.
Trent said she wanted to release last week’s vote count but was told by the Wyoming State Bar and the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office that it would be illegal for her to do so.
Before convening the grand jury, Trent said she consulted with Albany County District Court Judge Tori Kricken on whether to submit evidence of the previous two fatal shootings that Colling has been involved in.
Trent said that evidence was determined not to be relevant, as was evidence of previous run-ins Ramirez had with police in Laramie — including assaults.
Because it’s harder to dismiss jurors in a grand jury cases, Trent said some jurors still had pre-conceived notions about the case and asked about Colling’s previous shootings, even though that evidence wasn’t submitted.
Trent said she consulted the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office on crafting jury instructions and other aspects of the proceedings.
Some in Laramie have suggested Trent should have hired a special prosecutor to handle the case.
She said that, because she knew both Colling and Ramirez’s mother, she too initially questioned whether she could recuse herself.
“I’m going to tell you — you want me in this position,” she said Monday. “Because I’m accountable to the voters in this community. A special prosecutor that’s going to come in is not accountable to the community. As a matter of fact, I’m going to tell you that the times I have appointed a special prosecutor, I wish I would have handled it.”
When an officer is involved in a shooting in Wyoming, the Division of Criminal Investigation typically conducts an investigation and then it’s up to the local district attorney or county attorney to decide whether to prosecute.
“In reviewing that process, I felt we could do it better,” she said. “No matter what law enforcement said, I knew this needed to be investigated properly and thoroughly so we could determine: ‘How could this happen in our community?’”
In Albany County’s most recent police-involved shooting before Ramirez’s death, Trent independently determined the use of force was justified and released a lengthy explanation of that decision to the media.
“It didn’t feel right. I felt it like it need to be responded to from the public,” she said. “Also, I think the process of going through a grand jury … forces everyone to do a better job of determining what protocols need to be re-evaluated.”
That needed self-evaluation didn’t happen in the Vedauwoo shooting in May, she said.
“I believe there needs to be a higher standard for officers, as well as prosecutors, for when deadly force is used,” she said.
“We need to immediately get mental health training for officers,” Trent said. “We haven’t had that training in numerous years, and we have to have that.”
While officers receive crisis intervention training, Trent said that recognizing and dealing with mental illness during a traffic stop is not addressed. It needs to be, she said.
Every Wednesday, county officials review cases to analyze the actions of officers when dealing with the public.
“That’s exactly what I intend to do in this case,” Trent said.
She said there needs to protocols for how the county, and her office in particular, handles the deadly use of force by an officer.
“We shouldn’t have had to have citizens groups formed,” she said. “We should have policies and procedures in place for when the deadly use of force happens. We have none. We need to do better on how we handle how we communicate what’s going on. … We will change how that occurs.”
Additionally, Trent said the county needs to hire “an unbiased facilitator” to discuss the case so the county “can make the changes so that this doesn’t happen again.”
County officials recognized early on, she said, that there could be a possible civil suit from Ramirez’s family. Trent doesn’t blame them for exploring that possibility.
“Rightly so. We should all be accountable for what happens,” she said.
Early on in Colling’s case, Trent had recused herself from the county’s civil defense of the shooting. The Sheriff’s Office has retained private counsel, Thomas Thompson of Rawlins, to handle a possible civil suit file by Ramirez’s family.
Thompson has previously represented the state of Wyoming against a lawsuit filed by a Montana man who had been charged with murder. That case ended with a high profile $1.3 million settlement in 2013. Thompson also represented the City of Powell after one of the city’s police officers sexually assaulted a woman.
Against Thompson’s advice, Trent said she will now publicly release the full dashboard camera and body-cam footage that led to Colling’s Nov. 4 shooting of the 39-year-old man during a traffic stop.
“It’s against legal advice, and I’m probably going to get into trouble, but I’m decided that (the footage) should all be released,” she said.
Trent said all the evidence submitted to the grand jury is currently sealed. Trent said she expect to file a motion to unseal that evidence after the civil matter is finished.
Albany County for Proper Policing, a group created in the wake of Ramirez’s death, said in a Monday statement the shooting is evidence that police in Wyoming need greater de-escalation training.
“De-escalation training educates officers as to how they can make a stressful and often dangerous situation more manageable,” the group’s press release stated. “De-escalation trains officers to give civilians space, ask open-ended questions, and wait for backup. Unfortunately, like most states, Wyoming does not currently require officers to complete de-escalation training. This is a trend that is quickly changing in states that have experienced public outrage following a high-profile police shooting.”